Thursday, October 18, 2012

Norway: A Model for Prison Reform

With an eye toward prison reform, it's often beneficial to look to successful programs to see what they are doing right...and what we can do better.

Norwegian prisons have been in the news a lot over the past year. Most of the stories focus on Norway's alternate approach to incarceration, or, as one story puts it, "Norway's controversial cushy prison experiment."'  The media often seems to "scoff" at  the "perks" that Norwegian inmates enjoy. Yet, those on the inside (of the country that is) think differently about incarceration.

 Nils Christie, professor emeritus at the University of Oslo, has written several books about the stark contrast between the Scandinavian and American prison systems. Christie offers both thoughtful critiques and suggestions for improvement in several of his works.

A Suitable Amount of Crime
Crime Control as Industry

In addition, a Finnish television station has recently joined the conversation. The TV station has been working on a documentary that highlights the unique attributes of the prison systems in Scandinavia. A recent story posted in a Norwegian newspaper, loosely translated "Is this a Prison?", describes the shock that Attica correctional officer James Conway experienced while touring several Scandinavian prisons as part of the documentary project. Conway is quoted in the article as saying "I had to blink to make sure that I was still in prison." The article goes on to highlight the contrasts between the prisoner experience in the two countries in relation to inmate-correctional officer relationships, privacy, activities, and access. In all, this news story offers one example of a more humane view on incarceration. And while a complete transfer of all of Norway's facilities and policies is unlikely, there is much to be learned from a system that is so far removed from our own.

Christie's (2004) words are particularly fitting here:
"We should not always start with offences and offenders, and then ask what ought to be done. We should turn the whole thing upside down. We should start with the system of sanctions and here take basic values as our point of departure. We should ask: What sort of pain and what sort of distribution of pain do we find acceptable for our type of society?...We cannot say, not concretely and exactly, when enough is enough. But we can say that punishment is an activity low in the rank of values. Punishment should therefore be the last alternative, not the first one" (p. 108).

Christie, N. (2004). A suitable amount of crime. New York: Routledge. 

You can find the "Is this a prison" story~ in Norwegian ~ here.
Copy the text and past it into google translate for the full translation.
It's truly worth the read.

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